Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Charles Wesley - Reflections 2

Today we'll look at Charles Wesley and "The Poison of Calvinism." The words come from Wesley as he described those members of Methodism who became Calvinists. He says of them, "The poison of Calvinism has drunk up their spirit of love." (104) As Tyson describes it Charles not only didn't like Calvinism he had a "revulsion" to it. (102) What could create such an attitude? The Calvinists themselves. "Wesley was repulsed by the haughty pride he saw in some of those who had come to consider themselves 'the elect.'" (102) Calvinism's greatest problem is sometimes its very adherents. Make no mistake, however, Wesley had no affection for the doctrines either. Calvinism is described as nothing less than a "horrible decree," "a hellish blasphemy" and its advocates are "Priests of Moloch." (112) Charles was perhaps most poignant in his hymns. Consider this from the hymn entitled "The Horrible Decree":

Ah! gentle, gracious Dove;
And art Thou grieved in me,
That sinners should restrain Thy love,
and say, "It is not free;
It is not free for all";
The most Thou passt by,
And mockest with a fruitless call
Whom Thou has doom'd to die.

Tyson notes two figures during this controversy: John Cennick and George Whitefield. Cennick had been sent by John Wesley to be the master of the Kingswood School. As it turned out Cennick was a "closest Calvinist." When this was discovered Charles lamented, "we have set the wolf to keep the sheep." (104) Charles tried to come to some kind of understanding with Cennick but to no avail. He sent for John (who was still dealing with the "still ones") to come and help him. But it was too late. The Methodism eventually divided into Calvinist Methodists and Wesleyan Methodists. Tyson notes that this might have been the end of it if it hadn't already spread to some of their closest friends and allies in the revival--most notably George Whitefield.

George Whitefield had enjoyed great success in open air evangelism and was drawing large crowds. Charles was a man of peace and wrote to Whitefield offering an olive branch. He wrote, "My soul is set upon peace, and drawn out after you by love stronger than death." (106) Charles knew that people would have loved to drive a wedge between the two parties. Whitefield wrote back asking Charles to "never speak against election in your sermons." (106) He too desired peace as he wrote "I think I would rather die than see a division between us; and yet how can we walk together if we oppose each other?" (107) Letters were exchanged, books and hymns written and the controversy only escalated. By 1741 things began to settle and "[t]hey agreed not to preach or publish against each other with respect to this controversial doctrine." (114)

As with the "stillness" doctrine this controversy helped shape and solidify some vital elements of Wesleyan doctrine. Tyson explains, "Where he [Charles] had formerly advocated for universal salvation as one of the 'grand truths of the everlasting gospel,' now he insisted upon it. To that extent, the Calvinistic controversy found a resounding echo in almost every hymn Charles Wesley wrote after it; the Wesleyan 'all' became standard parlance in his hymns and preaching." (115)

As a Calvinist this was a hard chapter to read. To have doctrines that are so meaningful to me described as hellish blasphemy cuts to the quick. But I have seen similar rhetoric employed against my Arminian brothers and sisters. It is my prayer that the events of history can help us learn to disagree with Christian civility and love. To genuinely listen to the heart beat which lies underneath our doctrine and engage in debate which is dignified and profitable for growth.

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